New Google Earth Image Shows Multiple West Fork Sand Mines Mixing Their Wastewater with Your Drinking Water

On its way to Lake Houston, your drinking water runs through a gauntlet of sand mines – some old, some new. Many discharge industrial process water directly into the San Jacinto River and its tributaries. The latest Google Earth LandSat images show a total of 11 between I-45 and US 59 on the West Fork doing just that. In addition, photos taken from a boat show another breach in a sand mine dike that happened more recently on Caney Creek, a tributary of the East Fork. Together, these images make a powerful case for moving mines out of the floodway and establishing best management practices for sand mines. The industry has fought both measures.

Dangers of Mining in Floodways

For miners in the Houston area, locating mines in floodways is a dangerous, but lucrative practice. Lucrative because there is less overburden for miners to move. Dangerous because rivers frequently sweep through mines during floods. The floods can then carry sediment downstream, which creates blockages that contribute to flooding.

Floods can also flush chloride-laden process water out of the mines and into your drinking water. That makes City of Houston water treatment costs more expensive. A former high level manager in the City’s water treatment department told me that he saw huge spikes in chlorides after every flood and tracked it to sand mines.

Pictures Aren’t Pretty

Massive breach in Triple-P mine on Caney Creek allows process water to mix with water in tributary for Lake Houston, source of drinking water for two million people.

After discovering the breach above, Josh Alberson whose boat we were in, spent an evening pouring over satellite images. Last week, he sent me a list of GPS coordinates to review additional suspected breaches or discharges. See the images below, all from the West Fork.

First mine north of confluence with Spring Creek. A local canoeist found three breaches in this mine last December.
Breach on right open since 2015. Breach on top left was closed after 2015. Harvey swept through all these mines in 2017.
Note the stream at about two o’clock that is carrying sediment and process water to the river.
Small pit in middle drains into West Fork.
Overflow from mine contaminating West Fork.
This pit has remained open for years at a time. Sometimes the water flows in, other times it flows out.
Follow the stream from the pit on the right to the river on the left.
It looks like someone actually installed two culverts and built a road over this breach.
Note several small breaches in the bottom of this image and how the river is about to invade the major pit in the upper right,
See the line of sediment in the clearcut area between the large green pond and the river. Discharges date back to 2006.
West Fork San Jacinto just east of I-45.

Rule Rather than Exception

I could go on. But you get the idea. The TCEQ has said 15 sand mines are currently active on the West Fork between I-45 and US59. You just looked at a dozen breaches. Historical images in Google Earth show dozens of additional breaches in this same area. This is the rule rather than the exception.

Legislative Session Ends Hope for Improvement

Meanwhile, TACA, the Texas Aggregate and Concrete association, lobbied against establishing and publishing best practices for the industry including setbacks from rivers that could prevent this type of danger.

As we went into this Texas legislative session, I had high hopes. Representative Dan Huberty introduced HB 909, a bill that would have required the TCEQ to adopt and publish a set of best management practices for sand mines.

I drove up to Austin to speak for the bill. Rob Van Til, a sand miner representing TACA, spoke against it. Watch the testimony online at this link for the Committee Broadcast Archives. Make sure you scroll down to 5/1/19 and click on the link for Environmental Regulation. It lasts about 20 minutes. Here’s a guide for those short on time. At:

  • 4:30 Huberty introduces the legislation to the committee.
  • 6:45 Adrian Shelley, representing an environmental group, speaks for the bill.
  • 8:45 Rob Van Til, representing TACA speaks against.
  • 10:45 Representative Erin Zwiener questions Van Til
  • 16.25 Bob Rehak speaks for HB 909
  • 20:00 Huberty asks for committee support

The images above show why we need to move mines out of the floodway. But sadly, HB 909 never made it out of committee. The 86th Legislature ends this week. It’s time to start gearing up for 2021.

The thoughts expressed in this post represent my opinions on matters of public policy. They are protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the Anti-SLAPP statute of the Great State of Texas.

Posted by Bob Rehak on May 27, 2019 with help from Josh Alberson

636 Days after Hurricane Harvey